The movie was inspired by “Extremis” in Iron Man v.4 (2005-2006), featuring the Mandarin, who was one of Iron Man’s greatest foes. The Fu Manchu sort of racial stereotyping in the comic book was quietly abandoned. It was directed by Shane Black from a screenplay he wrote with Drew Pearce, and was produced by Kevin Feige, who later produced Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Avengers Endgame.
It opens with a flashback to New Years Eve 1999. Tony Stark meets Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) the inventor of Extremis, which promotes regeneration and recovery from crippling injuries, and scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) of Advanced Idea Mechanics. They want Stark to go into business with them, but he refuses and treats them in his usual way: making an appointment with the guy and standing him up so he can go to bed with the girl. This sets them on the road to enmity.
After the Avengers’ Battle of New York, Stark is suffering from PTSD. He is building dozens of remote-controlled Iron Man suits to cope with his chronic insomnia. His CEO and girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), is deeply worried and on his case. Someone called The Mandarin is responsible for a string of terrorist bombings. Intelligence agencies have no clues. Stark’s security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in one such explosion and Stark threatens the Mandarin on live TV, revealing his home address and saying, “Come and get me.” Helicopters armed with rockets totally destroy Stark’s home and nearly kill him, but he is saved by an experimental unfinished Iron Man suit, which JARVIS (voice of Paul Bettany) sends to the last address Stark programmed—the site of the latest Mandarin bombing in rural Tennessee—and Stark crash-lands in a snow-covered field. Unable to return or communicate in the damaged suit, Stark is thought to have been killed.
He is befriended and helped by a young boy--a major Iron Man fan named Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins). They investigate the local explosion and Stark finds that it is caused by soldiers subjected to Extremis. The makers of Extremis, to cover up the accidents, have been faking the terrorist attacks. Stark is attacked by Mandarin agents, and escapes with the boy’s help. Pepper is kidnapped, Stark’s friend Rhodie (Don Cheadle), once called War Machine and now working for the government as the Iron Patriot in red, white, and blue armour, has been trapped to gain access to his armour. Pepper is injected with Extremis.
Stark traces the Mandarin to Miami and discovers that the man who appears on TV warning of terrorist bombings is only an actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley). The real Mandarin is Killian, the producer of Extremis. Controlling the Iron Patriot armour, he attacks Air Force One and kidnaps President Ellis (William Sadler), but Iron Man, in an amazing scene, saves everyone else as they fall from the sky. They trace Killian to an abandoned oil tanker where Killian intends to kill the President live on TV. The Vice-President (Miguel Ferrer) is working for Killian and will then become President. Stark struggles to save Pepper, while Rhodes works to save the President. Stark summons all his functioning suits and they work together as a remotely controlled robot army.
My impression of the movie from one viewing long ago is of a minor part of the Avengers story. Just as Captain Picard needed a personal episode of Next Generation (“Family”) to cope with the PTSD of his assimilation by the Borg in the “Best of Both Worlds” episodes, Stark needed to pause and deal with his PTSD from nearly being blown up with an atom bomb, nearly being trapped in an alternate dimension forever, and nearly falling to his death over New York. But now I see that the movie is a brilliantly written and unusual story. Robert Downey is very funny, and his situation is touching. Gwyneth Paltrow manages to steal the movie. The kid played by Ty Simpkins is great with Downey and reminds me of Elliot in ET. The bad guys are all despicable and creepy. The tech is wonderful and fills the screen with spectacle. The action scenes are brilliant and filled with surprise moves, and the whole movie is totally bonkers.